Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Why not give people money for nothing?

Needing to work for your money is central to modern morality, but should it be? An interview with Liz Fouksman, a researcher at the University of Oxford.

Liz Fouksman
9 October 2019, 7.00am

Liz Fouksman is an academic at the African Studies Centre, in the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford. Beyond Trafficking and Slavery caught up with her at the 19th Global Basic Income Congress in Hyderabad, India, to chat about her new research into why so few people are willing to give, or to accept, money for nothing.

Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Liz, your research really gets to the heart of why a universal basic income is so contentious. What is it you’re looking at?

Liz Fouksman: I'm interested in why wage labour is still so important to people, and why people are so resistant to getting money without working for it. I think this is a big impediment to reforming our welfare systems, and it’s the most common intuitive objection to doing something like a universal basic income. ‘Why would you give people money if they don't work for it? You can't give people money for nothing.’ I'm curious as to why we keep on insisting that you can't give people money for nothing.

What are some of your key findings?

Work continues to be a central moral category for people. The way that people understand what they deserve and what they don't deserve, and how they're valuable to the world, is still really tied to work. Because when you're working and you get a wage, you know exactly how much you're worth in the world. It's your wage, right?

I’ve spoken a lot about this with poor, unemployed people in South Africa and Namibia. These are countries with really high unemployment rates, almost 40% in the case of South Africa. What’s interesting is that even the long-term unemployed who have almost no prospect of getting a formal sector job say similar things. ‘You can't get money for nothing’. Work stands in the centre of people's political imagination and people's moral imagination. It penetrates so deeply that, even if you have almost no prospect of getting a job, you still cling to the idea that work is how I'm valued in society.

This kind of moral attachment to wage labour is also one way that the wealth of the very wealthy is justified. When I asked people in South Africa, which is the most unequal major country in the world, whether they think that wealth inequality is a problem there, a lot of them actually said no. They said that the wealthy must have worked for their wealth and thus deserve it. This was said to me by poor Black people, in a country where much of the wealth was acquired via a process of racially-based dispossession and exploitation.

Of course, equally ironic is that the wealthy do get money for nothing – it’s called investment income.

What do you think could shift that mindset?

I was thinking about this while reading about abundance and scarcity. It slowly dawned on me that we are now living in a world of abundance, and have been for a while. So why are we still clinging to the idea that, by the sweat of our toil, we have to get our basic needs met? Economists were predicting way back in the early twentieth century that, with enough productivity growth, we would eventually have a society of leisure and abundance. In this new society people may work a little bit, but there will be a lot of time for leisure and doing what you will. That productivity growth happened, but society hasn’t moved on.

To me, what's fundamentally necessary for that to happen is for us to move away from the idea that the only valuable things you can do are things you're paid for, and that your activity has to be bought and sold on a market. In other words, we need to move away from treating meaningful activity as a commodity.

Once we decommodify work, we can do things that are meaningful and important not because we're paid to do them, but for other reasons, such as social recognition. Or because of the inherent value of these activities to ourselves, or because we enjoy them. Only then, I think, can we shift the conversation away from its current fixation on wage labour.

The power of basic income is that it takes that first step. It says that for your basic livelihood, for you to get enough food as not to starve and to have a roof over your head, you don't need to do anything. It's your right as a person, and you don't need to prove to us by toiling somewhere that you deserve to stay alive. That would be a first step in divorcing the relationship between livelihood and labour.

Let's decommodify all important activity and recognise that a lot of things are done not for a wage.

Many basic income advocates argue that a basic income could also redistribute reproductive and care tasks within society. Do you see that potential as well?

Feminist circles have been debating the question of recognition in care work for a long time. Some, like the Wages for Housework campaigns of the 1970s, argued that care work needs to be recognised by being paid for via a wage. The idea was that, under capitalism, you recognise activities by paying people to do them. So when we pay people who are doing housework, that's a form of recognition.

I would rather use basic income as a stepping stone in a different direction. Instead of commodifying care and paying people to do it, let's decommodify all important activity and recognise that a lot of things are done not for a wage, but for other reasons. Let’s find ways of recognising, valuing and rewarding work (caring or otherwise) beyond the wage.

There are plenty of feminists who say, hang on a second – basic income will potentially have the opposite effect of entrenching gendered relations of care.

The counter-argument goes more or less like this: if we give everyone a basic income, you are indeed supporting women who choose to do care in the home rather than to enter the formal wage labour markets. But, in enabling them to do this, you are perpetuating the gendered division of labour in which women are culturally and socially encouraged to stay in the home and men are encouraged to go out into the work force. And because of patriarchy, men generally earn more than women, so that would add an economic reason for women who are in families with men to be the ones to give up their (smaller) wage and choose to do the unpaid care-work. While I agree that this could be a potential problem (though I’d be interested to see what actually happens), I don’t think this is a reason not to have a basic income. UBI just has too many other important benefits, including for women. But this is another reason why I think basic income needs to be paired with a broader conversation around the nature of work.

For me, a lot of that also boils down to a conversation around working hours. I think that in the 1970s, when labour force participation rates of women went up dramatically in the West, there was a missed feminist moment. I think at that point, we should have said, ‘hold on. All of these women are now in full-time work, but who is actually doing the care work at home? And now that our labour force has more people participating in it, surely we can shorten everyone’s hours and get the same amount done?’

That never happened. Instead, you have everyone in formal work full-time and then…what happens at home? It gets squeezed into the cracks, and typically lands unequally on women. What also happened is that care got more commodified. Women now had to hire, usually, other women to come and do the care work that really should have been done by both men and women, if they had had more time.

You mentioned at the beginning of this interview that you’ve seen massive resistance to the idea of ‘getting money for free’ among your interview subjects. Has your research pointed to a way in which advocates could frame basic income so that it receives a warmer reception?

I’ve found in South Africa that people resist what they see as charity from the state for a whole host of reasons. One reason is distrust of the state, but also because no one wants to be a charity case. No one wants to have the sense that out of the goodness of their heart, the state has given me some philanthropic grant or something. This is where framing is really important.

South Africa already a social grant system, and in my research people have been quite resistant to a universal grant. However, sometimes I change the framing and say, ‘look, South Africa has all these natural resources, don't you think every citizen or every resident of South Africa should get a share of the wealth that's generated by the gold and the platinum and the diamonds? What if there was a monthly cash payout of the revenue from selling these resources?’ Suddenly, people flip, and they say, ‘oh, that's a great idea.’

It's fascinating what happens when you shift the framing just a little. One common objection I hear is the idea that if you give poor people money they'll spend it on alcohol. I’ve heard even the poor themselves say this, though there is almost no evidence that ‘sin spending’ goes up with cash transfers. However, the same people who were against giving poor people grants because they’ll drink it away were suddenly completely fine with poor people getting a share of national wealth, because it's their money -- they can do whatever they want with it.

This feature on universal basic income was financially supported by a grant from Humanity United.

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